Brock Vereen’s versatility could give him an edge at safety

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When Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery traded up to grab Minnesota safety Brock Vereen, he didn’t do it for depth. Vereen’s ability to play physical, combined with his athleticism and experience playing multiple positions will give him an opportunity to make an impact in 2014.

Without the benefit of the coaches tape, safeties can be difficult to scout. They typically begin each play outside of the camera frame and end it there as well, unless, of course, someone else blows an assignment.

Vereen is a bit different and the traits that allow him to be could make him the best value pick of the 2014 draft.

The new Bears safety doesn’t have much of a highlight tape, but that may not be a bad thing. When you see a safety making a diving interception or big hit after the catch, it’s because they were late arriving and missed what could have been a routine play. The book on Vereen is that he’s smart, was the leader of the Minnesota defense and rarely makes mistakes.

“There wasn’t any time where you looked and said, ‘What was he doing? Where was he at? Boy, he didn’t cover that very well,’” Minnesota defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told the Chicago Tribune.

His intelligence, athleticism and toughness allowed Sawvel and the Gophers to do a lot with Vereen that you don’t typically see at the collegiate level. The fact that he had limited experience at safety hurt him in the draft, but it could help his NFL career.

As a senior, injuries forced the Gophers to move Vereen back to cornerback where he started his career. He made the move even though he projected to be a safety in the NFL.

Vereen would not have made it to the NFL as a cornerback, but a safety with experience at the line of scrimmage has value.

When you turn on the tape, you see a player who is moving all around the defense. Whether it was covering the slot, playing deep or playing in the box as an extra linebacker, wherever the Gophers felt they needed a sure player, they put Vereen.

He has the speed (4.47 at the combine) to run with most receivers and he isn’t afraid to take on offensive linemen on running plays. Vereen also showed exceptional quickness at the combine as his three-cone time of 6.9 was the same as first-round pick Kyle Fuller’s and better than Justin Gilbert’s, the first cornerback drafted. Vereen also had the second-fastest 20-yard shuttle time, a drill that shows a player’s ability to change directions, an important trait for a safety to have.

It isn’t often that teams can find two defensive backs with excellent athleticism and physicality, but the Bears found two in Fuller and Vereen.

While he lacks the highlight plays, Vereen was very productive in Minnesota. Over the last three seasons he averaged about 64 tackles and eight passes defensed. By comparison, Green Bay first-rounder Haha Clinton-Dix averaged 44 tackles and 6.5 passes defensed in two years as a starter, with most of that production coming in 2012.

The big area where Vereen falls short is interceptions, however. Takeaways are king and Vereen hasn’t shown the ability to consistently catch the ball. He also has relatively short arms, which make him  unable to intercept some passes that a player like Clinton-Dix may bring down.

Vereen isn’t going to take the slot corner job from Fuller and I don’t know if he’s polished enough to start the season at safety over the much-maligned Chris Conte, but he should push Conte and allow the Bears to be versatile.

The Bears have to be hoping that Vereen’s draft status and athleticism will push Conte, bringing the best out of the veteran. That would limit Vereen to special teams and subpackages during his rookie season, but his impact will be felt, even if it’s mostly by pushing Conte into being a better player.

By now, you’ve heard a lot about the multiple looks the Bears are going to give opposing offenses and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Vereen used in a dime package. With he and Fuller the Bears wouldn’t be as vulnerable to the run as some other teams. Of course, their ability to play such subpackages will also depend on their defensive line being able to hold at the point of attack.

The Bears haven’t said a lot about their new defensive attack, so it’s hard to say how often they’ll use such subpackages. What we do know is that they liked Vereen enough to move up and grab him.

His athleticism, versatility and physicality fits the profile of what the Bears have tried to add to their defense this offseason. How much he impacts the Bears 2014 season will be interesting to see, but it’s a safe bet that we’ll be hearing his name.

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